Shephard moves to toughen discipline in the classroom

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Education ministers yesterday took the first steps towards fulfilling the Prime Minister's promise of tougher measures on the exclusion of problem pupils from schools.

Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, announced an urgent review of the current time-limit on exclusions, together with consultation on new legislation to give schools more powers to keep pupils in detention after school. Tuition for excluded pupils in special units - "sin-bins" - as an alternative to home tuition, which Mrs Shephard described as "costly" and a "mockery", would also be under review.

The proposals are in response to teachers' protests about a government circular on discipline issued only just over a year ago.

Numbers of pupils excluded from school have trebled in the past three years. Head teachers blame the government decision to remove their right to exclude pupils indefinitely, and say that they need more powers to curb difficult pupils. Two weeks ago, John Major promised that the Government would take action over teachers' concerns. Teachers, however, were not impressed by the promise. They say action is needed now.

Mrs Shephard said she was "minded" to relax the 15-day-a-term limit on exclusions and replace it with one of 45 days a year. She is also looking again at a legal ruling that prevents schools keeping children in after-school detention unless they have parents' permission.

She ruled out the heads' demand that indefinite exclusions be restored, and emphasised that teachers' problems had to be balanced against those of the children. Some schools, she said, were much better at dealing with disruptive pupils than others, and teachers were paid to show commitment to children, however difficult.

"The system has a duty to educate all children. We can't wash our hands of these children. In the end discipline boils down to the quality of teaching and leadership," she said.

"Flying squads" of disciplinarians will be funded in a pilot scheme to help schools tackle bad behaviour, and funds have been promised to help promote school-based units for pupils at risk of exclusion.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, accused Mrs Shephard of "fiddling while schools burn".

He said: "This is pious procrastination at its worst. It is remarkably soft stuff from a government that is supposed to be committed to law and order. The last thing teachers need is teams of experts lecturing them on how to cope with disruptive pupils. Most of the experts wouldn't last two minutes in front of a class."

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the package was welcome but did not go far or fast enough. He said: "There are glaring omissions regarding parental responsibility, the position of schools forced to admit pupils against their better judgement, and the need to restore indefinite exclusion."